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interviews

When Status Quo Decision-Making Stops

by Jamie Bemis
February 26, 2019

This interview, with Jamie Bemis, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

I work for Bright Power. We do energy efficiency and renewable energy consulting. I work specifically in the affordable housing sector. I work with developers of new affordable housing, and managers and owners of existing affordable housing, to find ways to incorporate energy efficiency projects and renewable energy projects. Typically we're talking about solar in New York City. On the side, I organize with a group called Science for the People, which was originally started during the anti-Vietnam war organizing efforts in the late 60s and continued publishing and bringing activists together, both locally and across the country for about twenty years. In the 90s, Science for the People stopped being functional, but we've really brought it back.

As someone who's incredibly passionate about both environmental justice and social justice, and sees climate change as the nexus of all of these issues, I find it to be really meaningful and effective to work on the subjects of climate change and the implications for social justice and environmental justice in our communities. I tend to think of them both from the professional lens through my day to day work, working with local communities to incorporate energy efficiency measures to reduce the utility bills and also greenhouse gas emissions. But then also to organize on the side. It's a nice top down and bottom up way to get at an issue that is really timely.

Do you think energy democracy is intrinsically tied to equity?

I do. Yeah, I do. It's a good question. As I was preparing for this conversation I was thinking about a quote from the journalist Naomi Klein. Do you know Naomi Klein?

Yeah!

She wrote This Changes Everything. One thing she talks about is this idea of sacrifice zones, where our global economy extracts resources somewhere, uses them in a different place, and then dumps the waste associated with that process somewhere else. In today's day and age we're learning more about what we call "cradle to cradle" or "cradle to grave," which is the full life cycle of products and the full life cycle of things like our energy, and our food, where we get our materials, where we get our clothing and so on and so forth. As we start to analyze these processes and realize the implications for sacrifice zones, we're learning that these are not sustainable approaches and we're rethinking them.

Democracy, and energy democracy, is an incredibly compelling component of that in its core to our assessment of how we rethink things. Organic food is something a lot of people are familiar with, and it’s very en vogue to shop local, eat local, eat grass fed beef, which is great. When I think of energy democracy I think of that as the next step.

We start asking ourselves where are our resources coming from, what are the implications of this, both for our own lives but also for the lives of the people living near either the extraction or the final destination of the byproducts? Is that what we want?

You asked about equity – I think a core component of energy democracy is local, decentralized control. I live in Brooklyn, I don't actually know where my electricity comes from. I would certainly have a lot more control over it if it was coming from my roof, from solar PV. That's also a better fit for the resiliency needed when the implications of climate change continue to get worse. Here in New York, we're going to have increased storm severity and increased weather extremes.

During Hurricane Sandy, there were communities that went without electricity for quite some time, particularly in the far Rockaways. When you have energy democracy, in the sense of decentralized and micro-grids, many sources of electricity feeding the grid, and many sources of battery backup and power that support that grid, you have a better ability to respond to the types of disasters that may occur with climate change.

So, yes, equity's intrinsically tied up in energy democracy, 100%.

I see energy democracy as a way to not only transition to renewable energy, but also to address issues of inclusion, social justice, access to the resources, and some of the social consequences of these questions as well – at the same time.

Does this sort of democracy work? What has the capacity to work in practice?

I absolutely think it does work 100%. I'm not convinced that every attempt at democratically controlled organization is going to work, just like with anything. I think the mechanism is effective. I come from New Hampshire, so I have this close tie to rural, small town communities –  which by the way, are struggling to maintain their identity as young people increasingly move to the big cities of this country. We have coastal cities that are magnets for young people, and then you have small town communities all over the country saying, "Okay, who are we now? And who are we going to be?"

In New England, there's a really strong history of mills, particularly in Massachusetts. Also, logging and paper production in New Hampshire. There were small communities where that was the basis of industry 100 years ago. I think in communities like that, for two reasons, energy democracy really resonates.

First, in New Hampshire, we still have town hall meetings and that's how decision making is made on the local level. Where I grew up it's still democratic, one person, one vote, talk it out in town hall and vote. I think that's the best of what democracy is at its core, people to people. We're a really big country and by the nature of that, we are forced to have some representation and delegation of decision making responsibilities. But, at a very local level, in some instances, people still do it the old-school way. In New Hampshire they do that still in many towns.

With energy democracy, it's again about local control. The town my parents live in right now is considering investing in renewable energy, but also in the infrastructure they need to be a vital, twenty-first century town, like high-speed internet and so on. In a very real, very day-to-day process, saying, "How do we bring young people to this community? How do we attract tax-payers, but also workforce?" Sustainable, renewable energy is one way to do that. They're exploring the feasibility of a solar and other technologies. I mentioned in New Hampshire logging used to be a main source of income for the state. Now, they're using sustainable forestry and making electricity out of the wood. It's sustainable biomass to make electricity. It's not perfect, but it's an example of how the forestry practices that used to be serving the paper mills could now actually be producing renewable energy for the state.

Really, the question at the crux of all of it is, "Who controls that resource? Who has power?" I think it should be the communities. The local communities. There's no question it can work, and there's no question that it does, it just means that you need to have conversations about inclusion.

With regard to access to power, I still think it's a lot more transparent and accessible than the traditional models of utilities and power plants, and the lack of accountability that comes with the traditional utility model for this country.

Do you think utility gets incorporated into future models? I think the conversation has to become, "How do we avoid mistakes we've made, that we know marginalize people, that we know don't work?” Especially when we're talking about power structures and equity – there will be large renewable energy companies who wield extreme amounts of power.

I definitely think the large solar power companies are not the answer here and not at all what we are focusing on when we talk about energy democracy. When I talk about energy democracy, I'm talking about small town in New England purchasing its own solar PV panels, even if it has to purchase ten at a time, and cooperatively owning that among citizens of the town.

When something is democratically controlled and tied to a mission, there's no need to continue to grow beyond the scale at which you meet the demand of your constituents.

I think the answer is going to be co-ops, not for-profit corporations. Definitely local owned and democratically governed cooperatives. What companies should be doing is fostering the development of these solar co-ops. In New York, we've recently passed legislation that made it easier for renters who have limited ability to control decisions on their buildings or to buy a solar PV system if you're a renter and don't have a roof. Now, you can buy into a solar co-op and it's virtually credited to your bill. Legislators, policy makers, and even corporations can further the goal of democratically controlled energy resources by furthering or supporting legislation like the one that let renters get involved with their community solar co-ops, and have production virtually credited to their ConEd bill, or whichever local utility they use.

We'll still need the grid, so the infrastructure for distribution will not go away. That need will still be there.

But, the production will absolutely shift towards many, many, many more players instead of the big utility companies. You'll see many more smaller players that are much more tied to the local community.

I agree with you, there certainly will be big solar PV producers out there, but it wasn't really who we're talking about and it doesn't even need to be the main players. I think your point about increasing the resiliency of our community by having more distributed energy is absolutely true. It is inherently a risk-mitigation tactic, as well as just good governance.

To diversify.

Absolutely.

I ask this question a lot, how do you think policy should incentivize transitioning to different energy systems? Especially on a micro level, in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where there are more renters than there are owners – how do you incorporate them into the future?

I'm not an expert on some of the local policies. My role is more in facilitating the development of real world implementation projects. But, I will say, I think you hit the nail on the head with regard to the challenge of the renter community. This is what we call "the split incentive" between renters and landlords. Say there's a building owner and he or she is paying for oil for heating, and it's extremely expensive, so they want to do an oil to gas conversion. That's going to affect the tenants because they're the ones who live there. And, by the way, heat is included in their rent, so they have no incentive to be a cooperative or helpful ally in that transition.

Similarly, the tenants are spending exorbitant amounts on cooling, and they want to replace the windows. The landlord's going, "I'm not paying for that because it's not my problem." So, this is the crux of the challenge that we face in urban communities that are heavily renter-oriented. The one thing I will say is that it takes a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and willing group of people to come together around it.

In my opinion, we could make more progress if there were more allies in the struggle in government who wanted to see this move forward.

That may very well soon become the case with the Green New Deal legislation currently in congress. I think we're having a moment right now. The climate change activist community has focused their energy very acutely on the Green New Deal legislation. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I feel like climate change, instead of just being something that keeps us up at night, is actually making folks really excited and empowered. I am so excited to see this, particularly among young people and millennials, and the up and coming generation of activists who are really finding their voice right now. We can see a lot more progress being made around this issue.

The split incentives in renter communities is one challenge among many. The density of our buildings is so high that providing the buildings in New York City with as much energy as it takes to meet our energy demand while there are so many people living in such a small place, is a very, very difficult challenge. But it can be addressed. We just need the political will to do it. Because of the vested interest from fossil fuel corporations, we haven't done that. It's really about making sure that the fossil fuel companies are not wielding as much political power as they have been, and that the new voices are being heard more.

I was a mechanical engineer and then a city planner. The challenges that we face are not technical at all. The knowhow exists. It's the political will that's needed. There are a lot of solutions out there, it just takes people being at the table and being willing to collaborate and problem-solve together, openly.

Right now, we're perpetually paying for coal, gas, whatever, because we run out and we need more, whereas solar is expensive to create and install, but then becomes free.

You're right. Absolutely.

That’s really appealing, but it doesn't move people with urgency. To do that the issue becomes political. How do you engage people who aren't passionate? Especially because our lives are more and more connected to electricity. Our cellphones are central to our day to day. Our money, everything is connected to energy.

I'm glad you asked this questions. There's a couple things that I want to tease out. Your point about electrification is spot-on. One thing I think is exciting is that the challenges we face with regard to climate change today are some of those same challenges we faced ten years ago. The circumstances are getting much worse, but a lot of the challenges are the same. How do we reduce our energy consumption? How do we create more renewable energy? What's interesting is that the technology we have at our disposal has changed drastically.

Even though some of these challenges feel old, the tools at our disposal are new and they're amazing.

You talk about technology, in Brooklyn, there's a pilot project that was using Bitcoin to trade solar. A peer-to-peer exchange of solar with no middleman. That is totally new and not something we could have done ten years ago.

With regard to electricity, I did a fellowship in Germany last spring on the subject of climate change, urban communities, and local strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation. I was struck by how the shift to electrification is actually very concerted here in the US. In Germany, they still have a lot more campus-style systems of campus steam, or campus gas, campus-forced hot water plants, which are very efficient, where a number of buildings are linked on a common system.

Let's say you have an entire neighborhood that maybe share a forced-hot water/heating plant. That's a very efficient way of heating a building when you have a number of systems on a plant like that. Here in the US, we don't have that type of infrastructure. We don't have a history of that type of infrastructure as much. There are sections of New York City that have steam, but most of the city doesn't. So you see, instead, this shift toward electrification.

One thing I like about the electrification trend here in the US is that it's very flexibly. You're right, we do see buildings that have electricity based utilities, but you're flexible with regard to where that electricity comes from. Electricity can be made by wind. It can also be made by solar. I think as we look to the future, you'll see the shift toward electrification continue and the renewable energy resources that we have at our disposal are viable sources of electricity production.

That is actually a great trend that will contribute to our ability to leverage the resources we have at our disposal at a given geography. You can have locally oriented solutions that still make use of the fact that it's all based on electricity.

And how do you engage people who are not passionate in the same way?

I've been working in sustainability for about ten years and one of the things I have learned is that you don't need to try and convert the already converted.

There are a lot of climate enthusiasts out there. There are people who care about the environment. I spend very little time thinking about those people because they're already in! We're aligned and we're running in the same direction.

At Bright Power, I work on our sales team and it's my job to tell other people why this is something for them to do that's worthwhile. The good news is, it's easier than ever to make that case.

I have an identical twin sister – my twin is a libertarian who voted for Trump, and is very conservative. New Hampshire, where I'm from, is a purple state. For me, it's about how do I connect with the other side?

I'll give you a concrete example. Buildings over a certain height in New York City are required to have an emergency generator to operate critical systems, like elevators, in cases of lost power. But, if you include cogeneration, it's also called "combined heat and power" and it uses gas, so it's not fossil fuel-free, but it's an alternative. It uses gas and it produces heat and electricity. If you use a cogeneration system, you can often reduce the size of your emergency generator and there's a return on investment because you're reducing your utility bills every month, too, whereas an emergency generator either runs on gas or diesel fuel, you use it once or twice a year maybe, and it's very stinky. It produces a ton of emissions and it's a huge investment versus your cogeneration unit which can run 365 days a year, twenty-four hours a day, producing electricity and heat for your building that reduces your utility cost.

Often when I talk to my clients I just say, "Would you prefer a sunken investment? Or would you prefer a return on investment?" It's easy to make the cost case.

I also think we're starting to understand the cost implications of some of the externalities associated with what I would call "status quo decision-making."

I work with a lot of mission driven non-profits. I can make a case about employment, or pollution surrounding energy efficiency and renewable energy because there's a lot of studies that show energy efficiency and renewable energy are way better for local employment than fossil fuels. It always depends on the audience, but there are so many different ways to talk about it because we understand the issues now better than ever. Everything from a return on investment, a wise financial decision, to the community impacts in terms of local job creation, to quantifying the negative externalities associated with pollution.

These are all bits and pieces of information that we have at our disposal. I typically focus on the financial benefits first because they're compelling. And then I speak to the other issues depending on who I'm talking to.

We all have a cousin or uncle who thinks wildly differently, but they're easy to ignore most of the time. An identical twin makes it a lot closer to home.

Oh my god, it couldn't be more real. I talk to her everyday and yet, we couldn't be on more opposite ends of the political spectrum. It's very grounding because she's truly the voice in my head. I know certain things I say she would not listen to. I try to frame it in different ways sometimes and I challenge myself to speak in ways that are compelling to her, and to her viewpoint. It is very challenging sometimes. Again, especially for the libertarian community where they're really oriented around independence, and small government, and local control, energy democracy actually fits very well with that.

It's about, "Get the government out of here, I'm going to control my own resources." When you frame it that way, it’s a no-brainer for both sides of the aisle.

Are you particularly excited about something you're working on right now?

Oh, gosh! I'm excited about so many things. I'll tell you what I'm excited about on the activist-side, and I'll tell you what I'm excited about as a professional.

As an activist, I'm very excited about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal initiative. As someone who organizes alongside scientists, engineers, computer scientists, and others, we're figuring out how we can best leverage our technical knowledge to contribute to what could very well be the most important legislation of many generations. I'm very, very excited to see where that goes, and I'm also excited to be someone who helps facilitate a public conversation around these things.

Energy democracy and the issues associated with anticipated climate change should be a local, public conversation that everyone can participate in.

I think over the next year, we'll be facilitating local forums to do just that across New York. There are folks across the country doing something similar. It's an issue we can all come together around. I'm unbelievably excited about the potential for a Green New Deal, both as someone who works in clean energy, but also as a citizen who wants to see our environment in our communities taken care of.

As a professional, I work in affordable housing, in creating sustainable affordable housing. I'm excited everyday about making the places the most vulnerable members of our society live, a better place. A place where their utility bills are lower. A place that supports a healthy, fulfilling life. Right now, there's a lot of conversation between the neuroscience community and the sustainability community around health, buildings, and green buildings. Many of us are exploring the connection between sustainability, in terms of green building design practices, and health benefits. I think we're at the tipping point. That conversation is going to become really compelling, really quickly.

Earlier you asked, how do you make the case to folks who are not inclined to agree with you on the importance of sustainability? I think health is one of them. I mentioned it briefly in terms of pollution, but I can tell you, I was in a conversation last week about this new building going up in the Bronx in an area with higher levels of pollution than other parts of the city. We can design a heat and cooling system that will filter the particulate before it goes into the building or not. Its a cost question.

Why would we build a building that could stand for 50-100 years, that's not going to filter particulate when we know there are higher than average asthma rates in that area?

I think having a conversation around health is another way to make the case for sustainability measures. I would say, "Well, the system that filters particulate is way more efficient and will use less energy." My public health colleague might say, "It's also better for your health because you're going to have a higher indoor air quality." The fact that we can make that case together is brand new because the research on health and buildings is just now becoming widely available and widely discussed. I see that as a huge touchpoint for this industry and I'm really excited to see where it goes.

It's amazing to talk to people who are deeply into it because you're able to have the conversation in a way that's nuanced.

I guess the only thing I would say is that, for me, the concept of energy democracy also begs the question, "What do we mean when we say democracy?"

That's something I think about because I think today in our country, we take for granted that we live in a democracy. It's something that we assume, but our version of democracy often means delegation of responsibilities and representation by others. When I talk about energy democracy, that's not quite what I mean. I mean local control and shared ownership models. I think that's an important distinction to make because it's not macroscopic, it's within your community. It's the church that you go to, putting up solar panels and having shares. Or, a youth group or PTA deciding that they're going to pool money together and purchase the solar PV system for a school. It's that type of local community oriented action.

I think anyone can do it. I mentioned earlier the town where my parents currently live, exploring solar. But it's just everyday folks saying "This is a good investment," or, "I'm interested in learning more about this." You said you weren't sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that the technical knowledge is out there. What I do think is that it actually enables democracy at a level that maybe we didn't have previously because we have a lot of information at the tips of our fingers that can enable us to move forward on local projects. I think it's a time of incredible opportunity and I guess that's the only distinction that I wanted to make, is that it's taking things down from the specialized knowledge spheres and putting them in the hands of everyday folks. It doesn't matter if you're a bus driver or if you're someone like me who works in sustainability consulting every single day, energy democracy means that everybody has the power to understand where their energy comes from, make decisions about where it comes from and make decisions that support their communities at it's very heart.

I guess, for me, that's really the most important part about the idea of energy democracy.